Modernisms

Frank Kermode

  • Pound, Yeats, Eliot and the Modernist Movement by C.K. Stead
    Macmillan, 393 pp, £27.50, March 1986, ISBN 0 333 37457 6
  • The Myth of Modernism and 20th-century Literature by Bernard Bergonzi
    Harvester, 216 pp, £25.00, January 1986, ISBN 0 7108 1002 4
  • The Innocent Eye: On Modern Literature and the Arts by Roger Shattuck
    Faber, 362 pp, £15.00, March 1986, ISBN 0 571 12071 7

The advantages and disadvantages of modernity have long been canvassed, so that you could say the topic is ancient. Pancirolli wrote a very popular book on it in the 16th century, and it was often remarked by self-deprecating moderns that they were like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants. The antiquity of this figure is the subject of a very learned and also very amusing book by Robert Merton; the received wisdom is that it goes at least as far back as the 12th century. So there is nothing very modern about worrying about what it means to be modern, and even if you think that being modern requires a total rejection of the past, like Tzara or Artaud, you become dependent on the past if only because you need to have it around to reject. As Paul de Man observed in his subtle essay ‘Literary History and Literary Modernity’, ‘the more radical the rejection of anything that came before, the greater the dependence on the past.’[*]

What blurs these continuities is the fact that in the natural course of things the topic takes on different shapes and tones in different eras. In the 17th century some scientists wanted to get rid not only of Aristotle but of natural languages as modes of recording natural observations: at the same time, critics were keen to purge poetry of falsities and opacities, epic machinery and ‘strong lines’. The response of Swift was to ridicule the scientists and also the pseudo-scientists whose language went to the other extreme; the response of Milton was to update the machinery and refine the rhetoric. This is what normally happens, and histories of the arts are histories of past modernities, even when the demand for the New is most strident, as, for instance, in Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Kandinsky.

However, it is now taken for granted in some circles that there was something qualitatively different about our modernity; that there was a decisive coupure around 1870 (the date varies), or that a wholly original understanding of linguistic functions simply made the past out of date; the differences between before and after are variously described (‘classic’ as against ‘modern’, for instance, or, to name names, George Eliot as against Joyce). It is probably useless to protest against the almost universal scholarly passion for periodisation: to have cardinal dates and canonical works associated with those dates is convenient, a useful fiction of which we forget the fictiveness. Another modern(ist) tendency is to explain that from where we stand – in our uniquely privileged moment – we can perceive certain truths about art that were concealed from our predecessors because they were trapped in their now obsolete epistemic myths.

This is not at all to deny that in any given situation thinking about quite other subjects may rub off on the arts. Early Modernism is in part a matter of new technology; the designers of dreadnoughts and flying machines had to do new thinking about ships and vehicles, to get away from the notion that a warship was just any old ship with guns on it, an aeroplane an automobile with wings attached. If you looked at poems and novels in the same way, you came upon a similiar notion – namely, that the design potential was far greater than anybody had realised, that literature was carrying too much weight, that the longest poem in the language would come out at about the length of The Waste Land if it was imaginatively designed. Roger Shattuck has an interesting but fragmentary piece in his book about the aesthetics of the fragment, very much to the point. You could now put poems, novels and films together on principles which had hitherto lain hidden. Their realisation called for a lot more work from the reader, so the alienation of high art from the general public, already well established, now grew greater, and continued to do so until the dons moved in and taught avant-gardism to their captive audiences.

It is the fault of the dons, I fear, that Modernism is both a period and a stylistic description. We should have learned long ago of the confusion arising from such practices: Wellek’s essay on Baroque is forty years old, and Lovejoy’s on the discrimination of Romanticisms (we use the term to mean so many things that it ends by meaning nothing) is over sixty. Perhaps some vague memory of these classic admonitions played a part in the invention of the term ‘Modernist’ – or rather its adaptation to modern conditions, for Swift used it in the Tale of a Tub, and it was a term of abuse, particularly of recalcitrant Roman Catholic theologians, right into the Twenties of the present century. But now ‘modernist’ is used of the modern works one happens to admire or regard as central or canonical. To be merely a modern author is to have chickened out of Modernism. As for the period, it is thought to have come to an end with Finnegans Wake or thereabouts; the admired experimental work that came later, and is judged to be in the same tradition, is called Post-Modernist. Like ‘Modernist’, it is what is nowadays called a ‘valorising’ description.

The consequences of all this can be very strange, as we see from C.K. Stead’s book. It is his second go at the subject, and comes 24 years after his first and much read book, The New Poetic. He wants to revise some of the opinions expressed there, especially concerning Yeats, whom he wants to move down, and Pound, whom he wants to move up. The lever employed in these operations is Modernism. ‘Something called Modernism had occurred in the early years of the century, and that movement (as I now see it) included Pound and Eliot but not Yeats. My purpose in this book has been to study the phenomenon of Modernism as a way of defining more clearly both the poets who were Modernists and the poets who were not.’ For Stead has ‘an historian’s hunch’ that Modernism is ‘the principal tidal movement in English in the 20th century’. Of course there were cross-tides; Stead particularly regrets that the political adhesions of the Thirties interfered with the principal tidal movement. And there is the difficult case of Eliot, who for a while virtually was the tide, but began to ebb and be merely modern.

Stead occasionally remarks that he is aware of the dangers inherent in this kind of thinking, but it seems to me he does very little to avoid them. There is an assumption that the value of Modernism is not only aesthetic but moral, and not to be Modernist can earn you a severe ethical condemnation. So when Yeats remarks that if he wakes up thinking about Maud Gonne a great sweetness flows up from his heart’s root, and he shakes from head to foot, he is almost certainly lying. ‘There must have been mornings, such as those when he woke in another woman’s bed, when he let himself off. Did he literally shake from head to foot? It is a banal question, but the poem should be strong enough to meet all such questions.’ Hardy, who felt at least as strongly about the dead Emma as Yeats did about the live Maud, ‘would never shame himself by telling us’. Yeats, moreover, was a snob, and somehow this is related to his not being a Modernist, his not being willing to ‘go all the way’ with his young mentor Pound. A further charge against him is that he wrote prose versions of his poems and then worked them up ‘into an arrangement of images, lines and rhythms’. The word ‘poem’ is here slyly avoided because such practices seem to show that Yeats lacked ‘inspiration’, a gift Stead values. But there are more ways than one of writing poetry, and of being inspired; Ben Jonson wrote some good poems on the same plan, and a look at the early versions of Yeats’s Byzantium poems, or ‘arrangements’, should be enough to show that it can achieve quite striking results. Pound often made poems out of other people’s prose, but he was Modernist, so that was OK.

The clearest demonstration of how a label can affect judgment is Stead’s treatment of Eliot. The Waste Land is an inspired poem and so Modernist that it can be said to have ‘defined’ Modernism. It is suitably ‘extreme’ and cannot be ‘taught’ (though Professor Stead has been teaching it for a quarter of a century). At the other extreme of Eliot’s poetic oeuvre, Four Quartets is not Modernist. It is poetic death, a failure, a treadmill. Other critics disagree and make a more positive case, but their operations merely prove that the poem can be subjected ‘to the kind of examination and explanation which, done expertly enough, can make anything look important’. Just how such delusive activities differ from Stead’s own when he is dealing with poets he likes is not explained.

Eliot’s progress from triumph to disaster is represented as a moral failure, a Coleridgean decline; Eliot was thinking of himself when he remarked that Coleridge was an inspired man later deserted by his muse. As he dwindled into a mere thinker Eliot grew more and more distasteful, an undoubted Fascist and a supporter of Hitler. When he happens to drift back into Modernism, as in ‘Marina’, there’s still something wrong. The poem is somehow excessive, too Modernist: ‘there must be a point at which a poem is so “open” it is no more than an empty space, a pile of fragments,’ or alternatively ‘an arrangement of offcuts’.

Eliot is clearly in what is known as a no-win situation, and one might suppose that if arrangements of offcuts are responsible the case of Pound may not be much happier. Not at all: the Cantos have their faults, but ‘even the most turgid passages’ are ‘pure’. Then again, Pound was much more obscenely a Fascist, an anti-semite and a fan of Hitler’s than Eliot, and it must frankly be said that this was absurd of him: but the Rome broadcasts are preferable to Eliot’s editorials because they are more virulent, more honest – ‘his extravagance is a kind of saving grace.’ Pecca fortiter – a slogan which, as it happens, appealed to Eliot – will save Pound. There is even something admirable in Pound’s use of disparaging racist epithets. For example, the use of ‘chink’ for Chinese in Canto 61 is ‘in its way one of the bizarre splendours of the Cantos’. As for offcuts, the Cantos may sometimes appear to be an arrangement of them: but not if you read properly. Then, looking at an apparent offcut, ‘one “understands” it in its particularity, without necessarily seeing, or feeling any anxiety about, its connections with what precedes or follows.’ That is to say, the Cantos aren’t too Modernist; that ‘saving grace’ is at work. Nevertheless, The Pisan Cantos are the last extreme of Modernism: they are not a pile of fragments but the beginning of Post-Modernism.

I am commenting not on Stead’s judgments but his methods. His book goes on to say some weird things about later English poetry because those methods won’t let him do anything else. What he writes about Larkin is based on the poet’s not altogether reliable obiter dicta. Larkin, we are told, endorsed a ‘neoclassical separation of “form” and “content” ’, so that his poems are just ‘a writing-up and decorating of a given “subject” or “idea” existing independently of the verse vehicle’. All those quotation-marks do nothing to mitigate the absurdity of the proposition. For the right Modernist tradition one looks to America. Stead accuses Eliot of being ‘an indifferent speller’ in a sentence which happens to contain a spelling mistake of his own: the fact that one of his American Modernists is John Ashbery, whose name Stead cannot spell, gives one little confidence in the quality of the information underlying these Modernist choices.

Stead is a vigorous writer, and there are pages in this book that are stronger than my review suggests. But it is amazingly prejudiced; its account of almost everything except the Cantos is hostile and inadequate, and I am not sure the Pound material will greatly please the Poundians. Finally, the focus of his book is very narrow; an undertaking to look at these questions as they come up in the other arts is only very scantily honoured.

Bergonzi’s book is, as one has come to expect of his work, temperate, judicious and open-minded. It is a collection of reviews with an introduction in which he makes some sensible remarks about the Modernist problem, noting that the emergence of Modernism as a literary category ‘coincided with the explosion in the academic study of modern literature and the erection of the major modernists into canonical figures’. As Trilling complained long ago, it has been the fate of these canonical Modernists to provide material for theses. But what is the canon? Bergonzi is less bothered than some about deciding who gets in, who gets near and who drops out. He takes polite issue with Stead over Four Quartets, and, like Stead, traces the course of Donald Davie’s relationship with Pound as a sort of fever-chart of English Poundianism. He also includes a review of C. David Heymann’s book The Last Rower, a book Stead barely mentions, though it is relevant to a study of that political ‘extravagance’ we heard described as ‘a kind of saving grace’. Pound, near the end of his life, said he was sorry he had been associated with anti-semitism, that ‘suburban prejudice’, and it is typical of Bergonzi that he quite gently refuses to accept this remark as an adequate recantation. There was nothing suburban about the death camps, and anyway the remark sounds as if Pound was merely sorry he had been caught out doing something that made him seem a bit déclassé.

Bergonzi discusses Bloomsbury or Bennett, Wells or Wyndham Lewis, Davie or Fredric Jameson, in the same informed, unassertive tone; the most memorable essay is actually an attack on Terry Eagleton, but the manner remains moderate even as the shafts go home. Bergonzi has obviously made a bourgeois submission to what is sometimes called ‘the tyranny of lucidity’ – a tyranny one cravenly wishes some critics would occasionally tire of resisting. He writes well about Larkin, appositely mentioning that one needs to be careful about taking the poet’s pronouncements as ‘a reliable guide to his practice’.

There are essays on Leavis, the poets of the Forties (Bernard Spencer, Alun Lewis, G.S. Fraser), on the Catholic novel, on George Steiner; the book is not quite the integral study its title may suggest. I have nothing against such collections; a lot of good critical writing disappears because of a prejudice against them. But the pieces should be tidied up a bit. Bergonzi’s essay on Steiner, for example, says that after The Death of Tragedy this critic ‘has not attempted another sustained book’, and our astonishment is great until we get to the end and see that the date of the essay is 1971. Another complaint: the book is monstrously expensive. It works out at about half-a-crown a page, and yet it appears there was no cash available to hire somebody to read the proofs.

Shattuck’s book is also, for the most part, a collection of previously published pieces, but the most substantial of them hang together, and there is no doubt that this is much the most important of these three books. As readers of The Banquet Years will recall, Shattuck is a historian of the arts with the knack of settling on a particular moment and exploring its implications – the method of the charged anecdote. To bring this off one needs not only to do a lot of research but to be an acute critic, and to take a much wider view of such issues as Modernism than Stead. Where Stead complains that the politics of the Thirties in some ways checked the flow of the Modernist tide, Shattuck gives a rather detailed account of the First International Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture, held in Paris in June 1935. It was addressed by Forster, Benda, Gide, Malraux, Barbusse, Max Brod, Pasternak, Tzara, Breton and the slippery Aragon, to name but a few. Various Modernisms were trying to get out of the ivory tower and into the terrifying world. The delegates naturally could not agree about how to do it. The Surrealists were determined to link artistic with political revolution, claiming that Marx’s command ‘transform the world’ and Rimbaud’s ‘change life’ amounted to the same thing. And there was a strong general desire to politicise the arts, though Benda, of course, disagreed. If the Congress achieved anything, it was that it made the Popular Front more plausible: but Shattuck thinks the long-term lesson was that artists and intellectuals achieve very little by associating art with politics. By patient work in newspaper files and interviews with survivors he has nevertheless made vivid a confrontation between the arts and political terror that was far more urgent than it appears if one thinks of it as just an unfortunate interruption of important developments in the history of poetry.

Shattuck is enormously well-informed about avant-gardes, especially Dada and Surrealism, topics on which he has an admirable essay in this book. The uneasy pair, destructive and creative, menacing to any establishment, could, like everything else, be tamed. Breton is now studied in the lycées, Duchamp has a place of exceptional honour in the museum at Philadelphia. Musing about ‘experiment’, Shattuck has interesting things to say about the coming together of art and joke, or what he calls blague, and about the cult of originality, among whose priests are Apollinaire, Duchamp and Barthes: though it is to Duchamp alone that he gives the honour of having made it impossible to be an artist in the earlier way.

I suppose this change in role or status follows from the understanding that anything is art if you say it is – anything can be placed in what Arthur Danto called an ‘aesthetic space’ – provided you can get people to make the necessary act of faith and take the space as aesthetic. I once went to a huge exhibition in New York where one empty room was labelled ‘Room’, and people walked into it very seriously, studied the blank walls and the electrical outlets with wires sticking out of them. This was a serious blague: it worked only because all art requires something like that response, and traditional assumptions were being roguishly exploited.

Originality itself has such a long history that its origins are obscure. Shattuck has something to say about this (not enough – one complaint about his book is that he often starts something very good and then breaks off with ‘this is not the place,’ or the like). He remarks that Ariosto claimed to be doing something wholly original, and that Milton said he was concerned with ‘things unattempted yet’ – a claim echoed by Fielding in Joseph Andrews. He misses an important point here. As Curtius long ago demonstrated, ‘things unattempted’ is a topos – it is found in Classical Greek. Ariosto was not innocent of blague: he was claiming originality by means of a trite formula. By Fielding’s time the joke was broader, since the topos enabled him to associate a ribald prose narrative with epic, yet also make a well-founded claim to novelty. It is always worth looking out for signs of antiquity, whether deliberate or unconscious, in modernity. In a good piece about the modern development of histrionic sensibility in the arts, Shattuck quotes a letter of Byron’s in which he says: ‘Now if I know myself, I should say that I have no character at all. I am so changeable, being everything by turns and nothing long.’ But as Lady Blessington would have understood, this piece of romantic modernity is actually a joky compound of two quotations, one from Dryden (on Zimri in Absalom and Achitophel) and the other from Pope writing about women.

Shattuck includes in his collection excellent pieces on Artaud, Valéry, Monet and Magritte, but it is obvious that much of his thinking about modern art is rooted in his study of Apollinaire, Dada and Surrealism. Apollinaire was the first of the great Modernist publicists, but Shattuck thinks he was more important as a poet, and indeed argues that the poem ‘Lettre-Océan’ should have the sort of place in literary history conventionally accorded in other fields to Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and the Sacre du Printemps. On the subject of Modernism more abstractly considered he has some rather dejected observations. Although he believes it is right to detect in literary and art history those coupures, shifts and glissements we hear so much about, the explanations of the phenomena usually provided don’t appeal to him. He is worried by the thought that the Modernism of the last fin de siècle has returned with an altered pathology – that we are reliving the old decadence, resuming catastrophism as a way of life, and building our own ivory towers out of modern linguistics, so that literature becomes language talking to itself. But with his eye for blague and his passion for ’Pata-physics he perfectly well sees that this is only another donnish theory of Modernism, and a concluding dialogue calls the whole concept a professorial exercise in nomenclature, a feather bed for critics, a category without meaning. I would say he shares some of the tendency to gradualism in the history of the arts which he dissects in an essay on Meyer Schapiro. What he says he would like is an innocent eye, no theoretical presuppositions to affect his vision of poem or painting. But even if his position in the academy allowed him to aspire to this theoretical virginity, he must know that it is simply unattainable, that the innocent eye sees nothing. In short, this is another blague. But given the tedium of professorial exercises in nomenclature, we should be as glad as Duchamp was of a giggle, and as ready as he to accept humour as a serious part of the critical as well as the artistic enterprise.

[*] The essay is in Blindness and Insight (1971). Yale French Studies, No 69, recently published, is a memorial volume called ‘The lesson of Paul de Man’. It contains the speeches made at his memorial service at Yale and a collection of essays by friends and disciples, but it will be valued most for a transcript of de Man’s last lecture, a brilliant comment on Benjamin’s essay ‘The Task of the Translator’, in which he often catches out Benjamin’s own translators. That they somethings give the exact opposite of Benjamin’s original is the occasion not merely for pedantic merriment but for further reflections on literature and Modernity.